Earlier in the year, the History Museum of Mobile’s board of directors agreed to pay for expensive meals and massages for certain city and board employees – an expenditure that has returned to highlight a “murky” relationship between the board and the city of Mobile.

In April, $516 was charged to a board account at Zea Rotisserie and Grill and Element’s Massage. According to Wayne Sirmon, who was the board’s chairman at the time, the purchases were made for four employees on Administrative Professionals’ Day.

“The last several years we’ve used board money to say ‘thanks’ to our staff members,” Sirmon said. “There’s nothing wrong with it. Some board members felt offended they didn’t get asked for permission, and they probably didn’t handle it in the best way. Instead of calling myself or (Director David) Alsobrook, they went to the city’s finance department.”

The money used for the meals and massages was not from public funds, but Colby Cooper, Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s chief of staff, said the unusual nature of the board and city’s public-private partnership made the purchases questionable.

“The board and city do have some shared accounts, but these were not city funds. The charges weren’t made with city credit cards,” Cooper said. “We’re currently working to audit these accounts to better understand who has what, but because we’re in a gray area, I have to question it.”

Cooper said other boards in Mobile have done similar things for their employees, but some of the four administrative assistants that received meals and massages are city employees.

Keep Mobile Beautiful and the Mobile Museum of Art are two other examples of organizations governed by both the city and a separate board. Cooper said those types of boards should be directed by similar guidance, and the city shouldn’t show favoritism to one set of employees.

Since the issue was raised, Alsobrook, Sirmon and acting chairman Beth Stafford have agreed to put a stop to any similar expenditures for administrative assistants in the future.

“These expenses were not presented in advance to the board,” Stafford said in an email. “When the board discovered these expenditures, it consulted with the city administration about them as well. The administration’s assistance has been invaluable in helping to address both the board and the administration’s mutual concerns.”

Though this particular issue may have been resolved, it’s indicative of underlying issues between the entities. Cooper said the Stimpson administration inherited a decades old “gray area” when it came to the functional responsibilities and finances of the museum.

The Mobile City Council appoints the 21-member board and each council member is generally tasked with appointing three members. However, neither board members nor their appointing city council members are responsible for managing the personnel of the museum. The board’s primary directive is to administer the budget and act as stewards of the museum’s collection on behalf of the city.

“This is a city department with merit system employees reporting to the chief of staff trying to operate with a board of this nature,” Cooper said. “A city councilor can’t in anyway meddle in the hiring and firing of personnel.”

However, that’s exactly what Sirmon, who stepped down as the board’s chairman last Monday, said some board members are trying to do.

“Some of the members feel they need to approve or disapprove daily operational matters at the museum,” Sirmon said. “Some of the people appointed in the last year-and-a-half have never taken the time to understand what the board’s purpose is and what we can and can’t do.”

Stafford said in an email to Lagniappe that Sirmon’s resignation as chairman was “mutually agreed upon.”

Sirmon, who has served on the board for more than four years, said Stafford was a part of a “well orchestrated move” to have him step down.

“Certain members of the board were discussing casting a vote of ‘no confidence’ against (Director) Alsobrook, and they didn’t like my answer, which was that he was employed through the personnel board like any other city employee would be,” Sirmon said. “They couldn’t get rid of him, so they leaned on me.”

Sirmon said he did volunteer his resignation as chairman during the meeting July 28, but only because he wanted to avoid a distraction for the museum and the city. In the same vein, Cooper recently discussed an email exchange about the board that caught the attention of District 1 Councilman Fred Richardson.

Late last month, board secretary Wanda Earl – a Richardson appointee – made an email inquiry to Alsobrook about a pending city-funded position at the museum.

“Please let us know the status on the Minority Curator position,” an email obtained by Lagniappe read. “I spoke with Councilman Richardson and he nor I (plus several board members) were not aware of the position posting, [sic] potential candidates, etc.”

After being briefed on Earl’s request, Cooper responded the same day, cautioning that “the hiring of all city employees is an administrative function of the city that falls under the purview of the hiring authority, the mayor.”

He also said that involving Richardson could be a violation of the Zoghby Act, Section 11-44C-2, a copy of which was attached to his response.

After reading the email, Richardson sought advice from council attorney Jim Rossler about Earl’s request. He made sure to clarify in an email that he had “not spoken a word to either officials at the museum nor the Stimpson’s administration, regarding hiring anyone, anywhere: nor do I plant [sic] to in the future.”

Rossler’s response indicated the Zogby Act wouldn’t apply to Earl or any board appointee for that matter.

“I see nothing that Mrs. Earl said in her email that would warrant any concern that she is violating any laws,” he said via email. “In fact the ByLaws [sic] of the Museum Board include a section for the appointment of a Personnel Committee that is vested with the responsibility of assisting the Museum Director in recruiting senior positions on the staff and making recommendations regarding such positions to the Appointing Authority.”

Richardson called Cooper’s email to Earl an “idle threat,” but Cooper said the city was making a “good faith” effort to clarify the roles of board members and the council members who appoint them. 

When asked about both situations, Cooper said the city was “looking forward,” adding that the administration has continued to work closely with Stafford and museum staff.

He said developing the museum and telling the city’s collective history is big part of the Stimpson administration’s goals for the city.

“Over the next week or so there will be further guidance that really starts to identify the separation of assets and the delineation of roles, responsibility and finances,” he said. “The city needs these public-private partnerships. I believe each city councilmember has good intentions when they appoint people to this board, but this is a 21-person board sitting near a city department. We have to really work hard to identify what that relationship is.”